Are We There Yet? A 'Twin Peaks: The Return' Progress Report

Eight episodes down, 10 to go.

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Eight episodes down, 10 to go.

Twin Peaks: The Return is on a break this week, just one episode shy of the season’s halfway mark, so with nothing new to write about, I thought we could take this opportunity to look at where we stand, narratively-speaking, in terms of pros and cons.

I say “narratively-speaking” because regardless of where you stand on the progress or lack thereof in terms of plot, you can’t deny that from a technical standpoint – direction, cinematography, editing, score, visual effects, make-up et cetera – Twin Peaks has been outstanding, risk-taking, and groundbreaking. Episode 8 alone, the last to air, was an unparalleled phenomenon the likes of which have never been seen on television, and it is destined to echo throughout the history of the medium as an artistic high point. So a big fat “PRO” gets stamped on pretty much every single technical element of the show, and if you don’t agree with that, might I suggest you click away now.

All right, then, let’s dig in.

Pro: Kyle MacLachlan

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Every ensemble has a spine, and Kyle MacLachlan has always been that for Twin Peaks, but in the new season he’s a triple-threat, playing good Coop, bad Coop, and Dougie Jones for a little bit there, and not a single one of them is the Cooper of old. MacLachlan, along with Frost & Lynch of course, has completely reinvented the character a couple times over while retaining his appeal, charm, and utter watchability. And when Twin Peaks is more all over the place than ever, narratively and physically, MacLachlan is anchoring the story in multiple ways. The only thing better than watching him work so far this season is going to be watching him work with himself in the inevitable good Coop-bad Coop showdown. Start engraving the Emmys, Golden Globes, and what-have-you’s now, because Kyle MacLachlan is your 2018 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.

 

Pro: Returning Characters
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Every time a familiar face pops up in the new season of Twin Peaks, I squeal like a very little, very excited piglet. Thus far the story has been pretty spot-on in the “where are they now” aspect of things. There have been some updates we expected – like Norma and Shelly still working at the diner, Andy and Lucy still together, Ben Horne still running The Great Northern – and some absolute curveballs, like Deputy Bobby Briggs, Jerry Horne the weed magnate, and Doc Jacoby’s new persona as Dr. Amp. But by and large, everyone feels like they’re right where they should be. Especially bittersweet are the appearances of cast members who passed before the third season started production, like Don S. Davis who played Major Briggs or Frank Silva who played BOB, and those who have passed since production began, like Catherine E. Coulson, a.k.a. Margaret Lanterman The Log Lady, who we saw briefly in the first episode, and Warren Frost, who Skyped in to episode 7 as Doc Hayward. But for me the best returning character (outside of Coop) is Albert Rosenfield, played by Miguel Ferrer, who passed away only a few months ago. Albert was always the cloud around the silver lining of Coop, and his deadpan realism, especially now bounced off Gordon Cole’s unabashed quirkiness, is a delight to watch and more important to the story than ever before. Albert, who was relegated mostly to comic relief in seasons 1 and 2, is now a vital cog in the machine meant to unravel the Coop mystery, and Ferrer has been pitch perfect. It is a fitting coda to a wonderful career.

 

Con: Stunt Casting

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This was my big worry when I saw the cast list for the new season, that massive document that read more like a phone book. Given that there were 200+ names and so many of them well-known actors, I had a feeling we wouldn’t be seeing too much of any one person, and that’s turned out to be the case. So many of the new characters feel like they’re one-and-done – Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Chantal Hutchins, Jim Belushi’s Bradley Mitchum, Michael Cera’s Wally Brando, Matthew Lillard’s William Hastings, Jeremy Davies’ Jimmy – as do some of the returning characters. Gary Hershberger as Mike Nelson, Harry Dean Stanton as Carl Rodd, David Duchovny as Denise Bryson, Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer, Wendy Robie as Nadine Hurley, and James Marshall as James Hurley have all been glimpsed but no current storylines actually involve them. Granted, we’re not even halfway done yet so likely some of these characters will be back, but all in all, it’s made for a jarring viewing experience, because trained as we are by the rules of television, every time we see a character or actor we recognize we assume they’re going to be around for a bit, or at least important to the overall storyline. Lynch and Frost though, in true Lynch-and-Frost fashion, have subverted this expectation by making nearly every recognizable name a cameo, which is fine, but like I said, a bit distracting.

 

Pro: New Characters

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Of the new characters that are integral to the storyline, the casting department deserves an A+ for finding the perfect people to bring them to life. Leader of the pack is Laura Dern, the only actress in the world who could have ever been Diane. Nothing’s been said to this effect officially, but I wholeheartedly believe Lynch had Dern in mind as Coop’s Gal Friday from the get go; if season three had gone down in the 90s, she still would’ve gotten the part. And the way her character is developing is more fascinating than anything we could have expected. She’s acerbic, headstrong, damaged, derisive, and tons of other things we previously hadn’t assigned to the character, who though never seen or heard in the original series had nevertheless established the emotional persona, through Coop, of being a doting, dependable assistant. Well, maybe she was back then, but the times they have a’changed, and the result is a more complex character – and performer – than we could have hoped for. Then there’s Amanda Seyfried as Becky, Shelly’s daughter (father TBD), who’s also spot on, not just in terms of the actress’ resemblance to Madchen Amick, but also in her aura, the dreamy, surreal, slightly dangerous atmosphere she conjures. Becky is a perfect Lynch blonde – innocent and tainted, sweet and wicked, strong and corruptible – and Seyfried is her perfect personification. Naomi Watts, too, as Janey-E Jones, Dougie’s put-upon wife, is turning in some of the best work of her career. She’s manic and domineering and boisterous yet so likable. Watching her steer good Coop around like a shopping cart with a wonky wheel has been the comedic highlight of the series so far, and yet the drama that hangs over her character has perhaps invited the most empathy. She doesn’t even know her husband’s dead, let alone that he wasn’t exactly real. That’s some dark shit.

 

Pro: Showtime

Besides a bigger budget – which made moments like all of episode 8 possible – the best aspect of Twins Peaks’ move to Showtime is, naturally, the ability to swear, screw, and kill in graphic detail. The “golly shucks!” timbre of the Twin Peaks of old is fine and dandy, but the show has always been at its best when the quirk was on the backburner and the darkness was thrown in our faces, and now that episodes air on pay cable instead of a broadcast network, Lynch and Frost are free to freak us the fuck out. It’s a nice balance to the restricted feel of the earlier seasons, which were produced under the frequent interference of executives who, along with other egregious mistakes, forced Frost & Lynch to reveal Laura’s killer at a faster pace than they had planned. On Showtime, Twin Peaks is under its creators’ control and their control only. The cuffs are off, the limits are gone, and the results have so far been worth the risk. Kudos to the network for taking it.

 

Con: Who’s Missing

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We still haven’t seen Audrey Horne. She’s the only major character from the original series who’s yet to make an appearance, and the longer the series goes without showing her, the larger her specter seems to loom. Announcing Sherilyn Fenn was among the returning cast seemed to be confirmation that her character survived the last time we saw her – chained to a bank vault door as a bomb inside the vault went off – but all we’ve heard of her this season is that she survived the blast but fell into a coma, and Coop (bad Coop) was seen leaving her room in intensive care just before he disappeared from Twin Peaks. I’ve theorized that she’s the unknown billionaire mentioned in episode one who owns the building housing the glass box, but now I’m starting to get the feeling she might be dead and when we do see her, it will be in another realm, possibly The Black Lodge, which makes a strange kind of sense if you consider the other prevailing theory about Audrey in season three: that bad Coop visited intensive care to rape Audrey in her coma, thus impregnating her with a child who would become Richard, who Coop was told to be wary of, with “Linda,” as he was allowed to depart The Lodge in episode one. Until Ms. Horne shows up, though, we’ll never know, which makes for excruciating anticipation. And that, of course, is what every great thriller strives for, so I guess this isn’t a con so much as it’s a petty complaint: we want Audrey!

 

Con: Aliens?

Please don’t Crystal Skull us, Twin Peaks, please. That’s all I’ll say.

 

Con: Trying to Write Up This Stuff Every Week

By the time I finished writing the episode 8 recap last week, I felt like I was on drugs, hard drugs, and good ones at that. It’s been like this all season. Every single second of every single episode has intense meaning, and there’s just no way to process it all immediately, which leaves one (me) drifting in this dark ether of symbolism, inference, and subtext. I write Sunday night after the episode ends, sleep on it then edit first thing Monday morning before posting, and then I spend the rest of the week realizing what I really should have said, how I really should have read this or that, and finding things I completely missed the first go-around. Recapping something like Twin Peaks is an exercise in frustration, mostly because any conversation about Twin Peaks before the season has finished is speculative at best. We can interpret things however we like but there are only two people at present who know what’s going on, and unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I have educated guesses and plenty of theories, but at the end of the day, your guess is as good as mine and neither are likely to be right. I wrote a book on Twin Peaks’ first two seasons, but that took 25 years’ worth of percolation. To try and replicate that kind of insight in a few hours just isn’t possible. So I try to separate the facts from my speculations, and I try to correct myself when I’m wrong, but writing up new episodes of Twin Peaks is like digging your way out of quicksand: the more you try, the deeper mired you get.

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But who am I kidding? I love being confounded by Twin Peaks, I always have. Art that encourages you to participate on more than an observational level is the best kind, I believe, because it doesn’t just reflect the creativity of its creators, it engages your own. What Lynch and Frost are doing right now is so beyond our experience and expectations that it is almost impossible to recount in words, and likely we will be trading theories and interpretations about certain aspect of the new series for years, possibly decades to come.

So pros, cons, in the end there’s only one of each that matters: Pro – Twin Peaks: The Return is indeed the monumental artistic endeavor we hoped it would be; and Con – we’re halfway done already. See you back here next week for all the juicy details on episode 9.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist